Cambridge University announced on Aug. 24 that it “does not and will not block” e-books for the Chinese market. The statement came after Beijing asked Cambridge University Press to remove over 300 articles of an academic journal, to which the publisher initially complied, but later reversed.
The world’s oldest publishing house, Cambridge University Press (CUP), revealed on Aug. 18 that they were asked by Beijing to block online access to 315 articles of China Quarterly, a highly respected academic journal published by CUP, in the Chinese market.
The blocked articles address topics including Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, and the Cultural Revolution—all deemed highly sensitive by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Fearing online access to its other publications would be blocked, the publisher complied with Beijing’s request.
“We are aware that other publishers have had entire collections of content blocked in China. … [We] will only consider blocking individual items (when requested to do so) when the wider availability of content is at risk,” reads the statement.
“If Cambridge University Press acquiesces to the demands of the Chinese government, we as academics and universities reserve the right to pursue other actions including boycotts of Cambridge University Press and related journals,” wrote Christopher Balding, an American political economist and Associate professor at Beijing University, who started the petition on change.org.
Amidst growing outrage, Cambridge University decided to re-post the over 300 blocked articles on Aug. 21.
That same day, the Journal of Asian Studies was asked by China’s General Administration of Press and Publications to remove around 100 articles of a second academic journal published by CUP from its websites in China.
In the non-profit world of academic publishing, the revenue generated from a massive Chinese online readership is tempting for Western publishers.
Hu Ping, a former managing editor of Beijing Spring, said the CCP’s tight control of foreign market access has created a false perception for Westerners that anything is better than nothing. Beijing Spring is a prominent New York-based online magazine in Chinese that covers China’s democracy movement and rights issues.
“Westerners have a kind of illusion,” Hu told NTD TV’s Chinese language edition. “They think as long as some of their articles can be imported, that still counts: ‘If you don’t take these articles, we can just delete them and we will give you other articles, which is better than nothing.'”
“The result is that nobody fights against the unreasonable request of the Chinese government, and they simply choose to compromise instead,” Hu added.
The Global Times, an English language mouthpiece of the CCP, published a provocative editorial in response to the international criticism.
“Western institutions have the freedom to choose. If they don’t like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us. If they think China’s internet market is so important that they can’t miss out, they need to respect Chinese law and adapt to the Chinese way.”
Cai Yongmei, the executive editor of Hong Kong publication Open Magazine, said the CCP has extended its control of thought and speech overseas, and is destroying freedom of speech and freedom of publication in free societies.
“As for [the CCP’s] suppression and control of freedom of information and freedom of thought, I think the international community needs to exert greater pressure and absolutely cannot compromise any more,” Cai told NTD Television.
On Aug. 24, Cambridge University published a statement to clarify its stance on the issue of CCP censorship.
“Cambridge University Press does not and will not block e-books for the Chinese market. Cambridge University Press makes its entire catalogue of print and e-books available throughout the world, including to China.”
But Cambridge University also said it’s up to the “Chinese importers decide which books they will purchase for resale within China.”
Analysts noted that the CCP’s censorship request is in fact a reflection of its insecurity because academic articles are only read by academia that work in higher education or by graduate students, not by the vast population, and thus have very little influence.
Hu Ping said the CCP’s authoritarian rule is based on lies. It is therefore very afraid of freedom of speech.
“Once people can freely access a variety of information, the propaganda of the CCP will become ineffective. [Free access to information] will encourage people to question the authority, and demand freedom and democracy. This will of course become a threat to the CCP’s one-party rule.”
Huang Yimei and Li Yun contributed to this article.